A visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry, The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings brings it to a catastrophic end.
Praise for The Sparrow
“A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Powerful . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Provocative, challenging . . . recalls both Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. Wells, with a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure.”—The Dallas Morning News
“[Mary Doria] Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense.”—USA Today
About the Author
Mary Doria Russell has been called one of the most versatile writers in contemporary American literature. Widely praised for her meticulous research, fine prose, and compelling narrative drive, she is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day, Doc, and Epitaph. Dr. Russell holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. She lives in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
Date of Birth:August 19, 1950
Place of Birth:Elmhurst, Illinois
Education:B.A., The University of Illinois; M.A., Northeastern University; Ph.D., The University of Michigan
Read an Excerpt
Ballantine Reader's Circle: The Sparrow (Excerpt)
ROME: DECEMBER 2059
On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spìrito, a few minutes' walk across St. Peter's Square from the Vatican. The next day, ignoring shouted questions and howls of journalistic outrage as he read, a Jesuit spokesman issued a short statement to the frustrated and angry media mob that had gathered outside Number 5's massive front door.
"To the best of our knowledge, Father Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat. Once again, we extend our thanks to the U.N., to the Contact Consortium and to the Asteroid Mining Division of Ohbayashi Corporation for making the return of Father Sandoz possible. We have no additional information regarding the fate of the Contact Consortium's crew members; they are in our prayers. Father Sandoz is too ill to question at this time and his recovery is expected to take months. Until then, there can be no further comment on the Jesuit mission or on the Contact Consortium's allegations regarding Father Sandoz's conduct on Rakhat."
This was simply to buy time.
It was true, of course, that Sandoz was ill. The man's whole body was bruised by the blooms of spontaneous hemorrhages where tiny blood vessel walls had breached and spilled their contents under his skin. His gums had stopped bleeding, but it would be a long while before he could eat normally. Eventually, something would have to be done about his hands.
Now, however, the combined effects of scurvy, anemia and exhaustion kept him asleep twenty hours out of the day. When awake, he lay motionless, coiled like a fetus and almost as helpless.
The door to his small room was nearly always left open in those early weeks. One afternoon, thinking to prevent Father Sandoz from being disturbed while the hallway floor was polished, Brother Edward Behr closed it, despite warnings about this from the Salvator Mundi staff. Sandoz happened to wake up and found himself shut in. Brother Edward did not repeat the mistake.
Vincenzo Giuliani, the Father General of the Society of Jesus, went each morning to look in on the man. He had no idea if Sandoz was aware of being observed; it was a familiar feeling. When very young, when the Father General was just plain Vince Giuliani, he had been fascinated by Emilio Sandoz, who was a year ahead of Giuliani during the decade-long process of priestly formation. A strange boy, Sandoz. A puzzling man. Vincenzo Giuliani had made a statesman's career of understanding other men, but he had never understood this one.
Gazing at Emilio, sick now and almost mute, Giuliani knew that Sandoz was unlikely to give up his secrets any time soon. This did not distress him. Vincenzo Giuliani was a patient man. One had to be patient to thrive in Rome, where time is measured not in centuries but in millennia, where patience and the long view have always distinguished political life. The city gave its name to the power of patienceRomanità. Romanità excludes emotion, hurry, doubt. Romanità waits, sees the moment and moves ruthlessly when the time is right. Romanità rests on an absolute conviction of ultimate success and arises from a single principle, Cunctando regitur mundis: Waiting, one conquers all.
So, even after sixty years, Vincenzo Giuliani felt no sense of impatience with his inability to understand Emilio Sandoz, only a sense of how satisfying it would be when the wait paid off.
The Father General's private secretary contacted Father John Candotti on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, three weeks after Emilio's arrival at Number 5. "Sandoz is well enough to see you now," Johannes Voelker informed Candotti. "Be here by two."
Be here by two! John thought irritably, marching along toward Vatican City from the retreat house where he'd just been assigned a stuffy little room with a view of Roman wallsthe stone only inches from his pointless window. Candotti had dealt with Voelker a couple of times since arriving and had taken a dislike to the Austrian from the start. In fact, John Candotti disliked everything about his present situation.
For one thing, he didn't understand why he'd been brought into this business. Neither a lawyer nor an academic, John Candotti was content to have come out on the less prestigious end of the Jesuit dictum, Publish or parish, and he was hip-deep in preparations for the grammar school Christmas program when his superior contacted him and told him to fly to Rome at the end of the week. "The Father General wishes you to assist Emilio Sandoz." That was the extent of his briefing. John had heard of Sandoz, of course. Everyone had heard of Sandoz. But John had no idea how he could be of any use to the man. When he asked for an explanation, he couldn't seem to pry a straight answer out of anyone. He had no practice at this kind of thing; subtlety and indirection were not indoor sports in Chicago.
And then there was Rome itself. At the impromptu farewell party, everyone was so excited for him. "Rome, Johnny!" All that history, those beautiful churches, the art. He'd been excited too, dumb shit. What did he know?
John Candotti was born to flat land, straight lines, square city blocks; nothing in Chicago had prepared him for the reality of Rome. The worst was when he could actually see the building he wanted to get to but found the street he was on curving away from it, leading him to yet another lovely piazza with yet another beautiful fountain, dumping him into another alley going nowhere. Another hour, trapped and frustrated by the hills, the curves, the rat's nest of streets smelling of cat piss and tomato sauce. He hated being lost, and he was always lost. He hated being late, and he was late all the time. The first five minutes of every conversation was John apologizing for being late and his Roman acquaintances assuring him it was no problem.
He hated it all the same, so he walked faster and faster, trying to get to the Jesuit Residence on time for a change, and collected an escort of small children, noisy with derision and obnoxious with delight at this bony, big-nosed, half-bald man with his flapping soutane and pumping arms.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting." John Candotti had repeated the apology to each person along the way to Sandoz's room and finally to Sandoz himself as Brother Edward Behr ushered him in and left him alone with the man. "The crowd outside is still huge. Do they ever go away? I'm John Candotti. The Father General asked me to help you at the hearings. Happy to meet you." He held out his hand without thinking, withdrawing it awkwardly when he remembered.
Sandoz did not rise from his chair by the window and at first, he either wouldn't or couldn't look in Candotti's direction. John had seen archive images of him, naturally, but Sandoz was a lot smaller than he expected, much thinner; older but not as old as he should have been. What was the calculation? Seventeen years out, almost four years on Rakhat, seventeen years back, but then there were the relativity effects of traveling near light speed. Born a year before the Father General, who was in his late seventies, Sandoz was estimated by the physicists to be about forty-five, give or take a little. Hard years, by the look of him, but not very many of them.
The silence went on a long time. Trying not to stare at the man's hands, John debated whether he should just go. It's way too soon, he thought, Voelker must be crazy. Then, finally, he heard Sandoz ask, "English?"
"American, Father. Brother Edward is English but I'm American."
"No," Sandoz said after a while. "La lengua. English."
Startled, John realized that he'd misunderstood. "Yes. I speak a little Spanish, if you'd prefer that."
"It was Italian, creo. Antesbefore, I mean. In the hospital. Sipajsi yo..." He stopped, close to tears, but got a hold of himself and spoke deliberately. "It would help ... if I could hear ... just one language for a while. English is okay."
"Sure. No problem. We'll stick to English," John said, shaken. Nobody had told him Sandoz was this far gone. "I'll make this a short visit, Father. I just wanted to introduce myself and see how you're doing. There's no rush about preparing for the hearings. I'm sure they can be postponed until you're well enough to..."
"To do what?" Sandoz asked, looking directly at Candotti for the first time. A deeply lined face, Indian ancestry plain in the high-bridged nose, the wide cheekbones, the stoicism. John Candotti could not imagine this man laughing.
To defend yourself, John was going to say, but it seemed mean. "To explain what happened."
The silence inside the Residence was noticeable, especially by the window, where the endless carnival noise of the city could be heard. A woman was scolding a child in Greek. Tourists and reporters milled around, shouting over the constant roar of the usual Vatican crowds and the taxi traffic. Repairs went on incessantly to keep the Eternal City from falling to pieces, the construction workers yelling, machinery grinding.
"I have nothing to say." Sandoz turned away again. "I shall withdraw from the Society."
"Father SandozFather, you can't expect the Society to let you walk away without understanding what happened out there. You may not want to face a hearing but whatever happens in here is nothing compared to what they'll put you through outside, the moment you walk out the door," John told him. "If we understood, we could help you. Make it easier for you, maybe?" There was no reply, only a slight hardening of the face profiled at the window. "Okay, look. I'll come back in a few days. When you're feeling better, right? Is there anything I can bring you? Someone I could contact for you?"
"No." There was no force behind the voice. "Thank you."
John suppressed a sigh and turned toward the door. His eyes swept past a sketch, lying on top of the small plain bureau. On something like paper, drawn in something like ink. A group of VaRakhati. Faces of great dignity and considerable charm. Extraordinary eyes, frilled with lashes to guard against the brilliant sunlight. Funny how you could tell that these were unusually handsome individuals, even when unfamiliar with their standards of beauty. John Candotti lifted the drawing to look at it more closely. Sandoz stood and took two swift steps toward him.
Sandoz was probably half his size and sicker than hell but John Candotti, veteran of Chicago streets, was startled into retreating. Feeling the wall against his back, he covered his embarrassment with a smile and put the drawing back on the bureau. "They're a handsome race, aren't they," he offered, trying to defuse whatever emotion was working on the man in front of him. "The ... folks in the picturefriends of yours, I guess?"
Sandoz backed away and looked at John for a few moments, as though calculating the other man's response. The daylight behind his hair lit it up, and the contrast hid his expression. If the room had been brighter or if John Candotti had known him better, he might have recognized a freakish solemnity that preceded any statement Sandoz expected to induce hilarity, or outrage. Sandoz hesitated and then found the precise word he wanted.
"Colleagues," he said at last.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell
Random House Reader’s Circle: Until The Sparrow you had only written serious scientific articles and technical manuals. How did you end up writing a speculative novel?
Mary Doria Russell: The idea came to me in the summer of 1992 as we were celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. There was a great deal of historical revisionism going on as we examined the mistakes made by Europeans when they first encountered foreign cultures in the Americas and elsewhere. It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That’s when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries—a position of radical ignorance. Unfortunately, there’s no place on Earth today where “first contact” is possible—you can find MTV, CNN, and McDonald’s everywhere you go. The only way to create a “first contact” story like this was to go off-planet.
RHRC: How did religion come to play such a central role in the story?
MDR: At the time I wrote this I was in the process of bringing religion back into my own life. I was brought up as a Catholic but left the Church in 1965 when I was fifteen. After twenty years of contented atheism I became a mother. Suddenly I was in a position of having to transmit my culture to my son. I needed to decide what things to pass on and what things to weed out. I realized my ethics and morality were rooted in religion and began to reconsider those decisions I had made when I was young. I found myself drawn to Judaism and eventually converted. When you convert to Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won’t rescue you. That was the theology I was dealing with at the time. Writing The Sparrow allowed me to look at the place of religion in the lives of many people and to weigh the risks and the beauties of religious belief from the comfort of my own home.
RHRC: What exactly are the risks and beauties of religion?
MDR: The beauty of religion is the way in which it enriches your understanding of what your senses tell you. I see no conflict between scientific and religious thought. They are just two very different ways of interpreting what we see all around us. What I gained was a cultural depth, a perspective that reaches back 3,200 years. There’s a certain kind of serenity that comes from knowing that the ethics you draw on have been tested and re-tested by one thousand generations in every possible cultural and ethical climate, and that they have been found reliable and useful by so many people for so long under many different circumstances.
The risks have to do with believing that God micromanages the world, and with seeing what may be simply coincidence as significant and indicative of divine providence. It’s very easy then to go out on a limb spiritually, expect more from God than you have a right to expect, and set yourself up for bitter disappointment in His silence and lack of action.
RHRC: Where did the idea come from for the two alien races on Rakhat, the Runa and the Jana’ata?
MDR: It started with a look at two austratopithecine species from Earth’s prehistory: herbivores and carnivores/scavengers. I began by thinking, What would it be like if the herbivores were still around? That was the beginning of the idea. Then I asked myself, What would civilization be like if a carnivore had domesticated its prey species? That’s where I came up with the idea for the relationship between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The Jana’ata are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.
RHRC: What’s the hardest thing about using two narrative lines to tell a story?
MDR: Pacing. You have to stop and think, Who does the reader want to be with now? Some time ago I realized the books that kept me turning pages were the ones that had two or more story lines. It’s a structure I admired as a reader. As a writer, having two story lines proved to be of great value. When I played out my imagination in one story line I could take a break from it and turn to the other with fresh enthusiasm. The tricky part is in introducing two separate sets of characters in the first one hundred pages. There’s a lot of setup that goes into it and you have to keep readers interested while developing the new characters.
RHRC: What sort of writing routine do you have?
MDR: I sit down in the morning when my husband’s at work and my son’s at school, and I spend seven hours in front of the computer. My working method is to make yardage every day. I don’t expect to throw a long bomb each time I sit down to write. Occasionally a whole chapter does come all at once but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The main thing to remember is that writing happens by doing the writing.
RHRC: Are any of your characters based on real people?
MDR: Some of them are. Anne and George share a biography with my husband and me, within certain limitations. Anne was willing to go to another planet and I won’t even go camping. Nevertheless, she speaks fairly clearly in my voice. I used my brother’s voice for John Candotti. There’s a kind of “Chicago attitude” in his character that came from my brother. There were also real people who gave me the voice of D.W. One of them is a Texas congressman and the other a real-life New Orleans provincial. Emilio is his own person. I know nobody like him. I’m not sure I could be friends with a person like that. He’s too intense in a lot of ways. Sofia is also her own person.
RHRC: Why did you use the Jesuits as main characters and how did you gain such insight into their world?
MDR: The reason for using the Jesuits was simple logic. If we were to receive incontrovertible evidence of an extraterrestrial culture that could be reached in a human lifespan, who would go? I thought of the Jesuits because they have a long history of first contact with cultures other than their own. The problem was I knew no Jesuits at the time I wrote this. And you can’t just knock on a Jesuit’s door and say, “I’m writing a first novel about Jesuits in space. Tell me your intimate thoughts about being a priest.” What I did have, however, was access to dozens and dozens of autobiographies written by priests and ex-priests during the last thirty years. Since Vatican II, 100,000 priests have left the active priesthood. Many priests have written autobiographies in which they discuss the motives that brought them to the life, the satisfactions and frustrations of the priesthood, why they decided to leave it behind, or why they remained true to the vocation.
RHRC: One reviewer calls this “a parable about faith—the search for God, in others as well as Out There.” Another says it’s about “the problem of evil and how it may stand in the path of a person’s deepest need to believe.” How do you describe the themes in this book?
MDR: The central theme is an exploration of the risks and beauties of religious faith, If there isn’t a God, then Emilio Sandoz is all alone. And yet he’s terrified of the God he thinks he has discovered. But the story also revolves around the theme of family. One of the things I noticed after the story was finished was that all the main characters are childless, and yet they create a family for themselves, They relate to one another as son and daughter, brother and sister, uncle and aunt, grandparent and grandchild. It seems to me that this kind of spiritual kinship is tremendously important to all the people in this book. And the fact that they don’t have close genetic kin—they have no children to leave on Earth—gives them a kind of wistful freedom. Anne and George would have made terrific parents but they’re childless. Emilio, Jimmy, and Sofia become their surrogate kids. Those ties—that spiritual tension—was every bit as strong and resilient as genetic ties—perhaps even stronger.
RHRC: Why did The Sparrow have to end the way it did?
MDR: Because I needed to ask questions in their starkest terms. What happens to Emilio Sandoz is a holocaust writ small. He survives, but loses everyone. Now he has to live in its aftermath.
RHRC: What’s the moral of this story?
MDR: Maybe it’s “Even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed.” We seem to believe that if we act in accordance with our understanding of God’s will, we ought to be rewarded. But in doing so we’re making a deal that God didn’t sign on to. Emilio has kept his end of a bargain that he made with God, and he feels betrayed. He believes he has been seduced and raped by God, that he’s been used against his will for God’s own purpose. And I guess that’s partly what I’m doing with this book. I wanted to look at that aspect of theology. In our world, if people believe at all, they believe that God is love, God is hearts and flowers, and that God will send you theological candy all the time. But if you read Torah, you realize that God has a lot to answer for. God is a complex personality. I wanted to explore that complexity and that moral ambiguity. God gives us rules but those are rules for us, not for God.
RHRC: What’s your next project?
MDR: I’m working on a sequel to The Sparrow titled Children of God. Emilio Sandoz goes back to Rakhat, but only because he has no choice. God is not done with him yet.
RHRC: What has been the toughest thing about writing the sequel?
MDR: The fact that there are so many people who are passionate about the original characters and care so much about the issues. Writing a sequel has been a real high-wire act. I’ve got to be able to reproduce those elements of the first book that people responded to strongly but I don’t want to repeat myself. I have to break new ground. I hope that I have done that but it has not been an easy trick to pull off. What the second book does is reverse the story’s emphasis—two thirds of the action takes place on Rakhat, and one third on Earth. Children of God explores what happens to the people on Rakhat because Emilio Sandoz was there. There are children born because of him, and children are always revolutionary. Things that we would put up with ourselves can become intolerable when we see our children forced to face the same circumstances.
RHRC: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
MDR: That you can’t know the answer to questions of faith but that the questions are worth asking and worth thinking about deeply.
1. How do faith, love, and the role of God in the world drive the plot of this story? One reviewer characterized this book as “a parable about faith–the search for God, in others as well as Out There.” Do you agree? If so, why?
2. This story takes place from the years 2019 to 2060. The United States is no longer the predominant world power, having lost two trade wars with Japan, which is now supreme in both space and on Earth. Poverty is rampant. Indentured servitude is once more a common practice, and “future brokers” mine ghettos for promising children to educate in return for a large chunk of their lifetime income. What kinds of changes do you think will occur during the twenty-ﬁrst century–with governments, technology, society, and so on? Do you think America will lose its predominant status in the world?
3. Do you think it likely that we will make contact with extraterrestrials at some time in the future? What will the implications of such an event be? We’ve always viewed Earth, and human beings, as the center of the universe. Will that still be the case if we discover alien life forms? How will such a discovery change theology? Does God love us best? Will such a discovery conﬁrm the existence of God or cause us to question his existence at all?
4. If, sometime within the next century, we hear radio signals from a solar system less than a dozen light years away from our own, do you think humankind would mount an expedition to visit that place? Who do you think might lead such an expedition? If you had to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? Is the trip to Rakhat a scientific mission or a religious one?
5. The Sparrow tells a story by interweaving two time periods–after the mission to Rakhat and before. Do you think this makes the story more interesting and easier to follow or more difﬁcult to follow? How does this story differ from other stories you have read?
6. Why do you think Sandoz resists telling the story of what happened on Rakhat?
7. A basic premise of this story is an evaluation of the harm that results from the explorer’s inability to assess a culture from the threshold of exploration. Do you see any parallels between the voyage of the eight explorers on the Rakhat mission and the voyages of other explorers from past history–Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, and others–who inaccurately assessed the cultures they discovered?
8. Despite currently popular revisionism, many historians view the early discoverers of the ﬁfteenth and sixteenth centuries not as imperialists or colonists but as intellectual idealists burning to know what God’s plan had hidden from them. Do you agree? Does this story make you reconsider the motives of those early explorers?
9. One of the mainstays of the Star Trek universe is the “prime directive” which mandates the avoidance of interference in alien culures at all costs. Would the “prime directive” have changed the outcome of events on Rakhat?
10. In an interview, the author said, “I wanted readers to look philosophically at the idea that you can be seduced by the notion that God is leading you and that your actions have his approval.” What do you think she means by that? In what way was Emilio Sandoz seduced by this notion
11. How is Emilio Sandoz’s faith tested on Rakhat? One reviewer suggests that in his utter humiliation and in the annihilation of his spirit, Sandoz is reborn in faith. Do you agree? Consider Sandoz’s dilemma on page 394. Did God lead the explorers to Rakhat–step by step–or was Sandoz responsible for what happened? If God was responsible for bringing the explorers to Rakhat, does that mean that God is vicious?
12. The discoverers of Rakhat seem to be connected by circumstances too odd to be explained by anything but a manifestation of God’s will. Do you think it was God’s will that led to the discovery of and mission to Rakhat, as Sandoz initially believes? If that’ s the case, how could God let the terrible aftermath happen?
13. One reviewer wrote, “It is neither celibacy, faith, exotic goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity’s oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens’ shoes.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
3. One reviewer wrote, "It is neither celibacy, faith, exotics goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity's oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens' shoes." Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recoverboth as a man and as a priestfrom his ordeal?
15. Why do you think it's so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Sofia Mendez?
16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren't they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoza man victimized by his faith?
17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?
14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recover– both as a man and as a priest–from his ordeal?
15. Why do you think it’s so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Soﬁa Mendez?
16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren’t they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoz–a man victimized by his faith?
17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?